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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Aston Martin's $189,000 DBX SUV Conquers the Arabian Desert

When you take an Aston Martin into a turn, the only thought in your mind should be how to get out of it as fast as possible, preferably with tires smoking and the back end swinging out just enough to help you carry more speed through the curve in the road without losing control. Making it happen is a question of combining the throttle, brake, and steering just so, keeping everything pointing the right way. So that’s what I’m thinking as I hang an arcing left, but the calculus is a novel one. Instead of predictable pavement, I’m on a dirt road covered with the slippery red sand of the Arabian Peninsula. And instead of a track beast like Aston’s Vantage, I’m in the company’s all-new SUV, the DBX.

I’m testing the DBX in Oman, where Aston engineers are putting the finishing touches on the handling and dynamics of the sleek new five-passenger, $189,000 model, due out later this year. They’re nudging it as close to being a multi-terrain supercar as they can, something that can power slide across tarmac and dirt with the poise that befits the British carmaker’s storied nameplate. If they hit the mark, I’ll look like T. E. Lawrence reincarnated, with an upgraded camel. If not, I may well wrap their new toy around one of the ageless boulders that line the road.

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I flick the wheel to break the back end loose and plunge the throttle. The Aston skips and shudders across the rippled surface, but holds the line as it arcs to the left. The rear-biased all-wheel-drive system, adjusting how much torque goes to each wheel from one millisecond to the next, helps the car’s steadily increasing oversteer creep toward the edge of the road, the tires spitting rocks and dirt at the boulders. “We’re trying to send engine power to all the right places to make it fun and playful, but still very safe,” says DBX chief engineer Matt Becker. “So, as you can see, the car is able to go sideways, much to everyone’s joy.”

The Aston delivers a few scary moments as the terrain slides around beneath it, but does impressive work considering it lacks the proper kit—knobby tires and a truly off-road suspension—that would make it unbearable to drive on surface streets. The V8 engine, brought in from Mercedes-AMG, produces 542 horsepower and takes the SUV to 181 mph. The nine-speed transmission keeps pace brilliantly, giving me no reason to interfere with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

This is just one more test for the DBX, but every grade carries an outsize weight. Aston Martin’s sales dropped last year, despite a lineup of savage supercars like the Vantage, DB11, and DBS, the Valkyrie hypercar, and the upcoming Valhalla hypercar. And despite a variety of efforts underway to secure further investment and right the company’s financial ship. A briskly selling SUV could be Aston’s savior. It wouldn’t be the first of its kind: Luxury SUVs from Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce, and Maserati have become customer favorites, reflecting the market’s obsession with the big rides and performance enthusiasts’ desire for a practical vehicle that still feels special.

To deliver that feeling, Aston’s engineers are leaning heavily on the highly adaptable, electronically controlled powertrains and suspensions that have made truly multi-environment SUVs newly possible. The DBX’s 48-volt electric system, for instance, allows for an active anti-roll bar, which pushes the wheels down in response to body roll movement in hard cornering. An old-fashioned passive equivalent, such as the torsion bars that must be set permanently, can’t be adjusted based on driving conditions.

Moreover, these systems allow for faster adjustments during vehicle development. “We were on the Autobahn in Germany the other week, and the car felt a little oversensitive at speed during a crosswind,” Becker recalls. “So we just shot up to 260 km per hour or so and adjusted the roll stiffness by 1 percent in the front, because it was actually the rear that was too connected to the road. It was instantly better.”

In Oman, the adjustments are still mostly in this kind of software programming—the hardware’s been locked down for some time—and in tweaking the various drive modes. These settings, folding in a wider range of capabilities than other performance SUVs might muster, could have the most impact in making the DBX a success, Becker says. The three-chamber air suspension—a first for Aston but available in some other cars, including Porsche’s Cayenne—can immediately flip from one setup to another. It will raise itself nearly two inches to ford water up to 20 inches deep, or squat down more than half an inch to improve aerodynamics and stability in sport mode. Staggered front and rear tire sizes help on the pavement: Slightly wider back rubbers improve grip without compromising front-end steering.

While the company’s sports cars allow users to control many of these systems independently, Becker guesses that DBX drivers will want the car to sort out most things itself, like a user-friendly sort of badass. A proper track drive will eventually reveal the DBX’s ability to uphold both ends of the bargain—the drive in Oman focused on off-road capability, and our on-road driving was minimal and reasonably restrained—but the signs are promising. It felt quick and confident on the road, ready for anything the world could throw at it, on any surface. Whether the DBX can save Aston Martin from further financial distress remains to be seen, but it’s clearly up for a challenge or two.

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